Strange Goes From Strength To Strength
We are now four episodes into the lavish BBC version of Susanna Clarke’s award-winning ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’.
It continues to get to the meat of this huge trilogy, drawing out the core of the story in a way that’s far more successful than the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Gormenghast’, with its soap-star casting. Here, Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel are deepening and enriching their characters as we get further in and the Raven King approaches. With its stunning Georgian settings and painterly production design it’s certainly not ‘Penny Dreadful’.
But that’s the general complaint. The seven hour adaptation is too conceptual for ‘Game of Thrones’ fans. No-one is raping dragons or fisting dwarves. Instead, witty dialogue and intelligent ideas abound, and the show continues to shed viewers. But I don’t care; it was made without compromise, and time will prove its endurance. So to recap;
Set in the era of the Napoleonic wars, 300 years after ‘magick’ has been taken off the menu of British pursuits, the coffee house intellectuals of London are reduced to discussions of its art rather than its practice. Disturbing the theoretical chatter, two magicians appear with very different perspectives on the problem. Mr Norrell (Marsan) is a meticulous, misanthropic beetle of a man, possessed by his dusty library of ‘proper’ magic, eschewing fame yet wholly protective of his image, while Strange (Carvel) is a natural, a naif who works wonders without spells and is amazed when anything goes right.
Their relationship begins on a footing of mutual respect but quickly develops fault lines, not least because Norrell is persuaded to revive Lady Pole from the dead, failing to comprehend the terrible bargain he has struck. Strange, on the other hand, soon helps the war effort, producing a fleet of horses from sand to free a beached galleon and making roads across Portugal. In the wings waits the terrible prophecy of the Raven King, the reason why magick was banished in the first place…but are the old ways wrong, as Norrell insists, or do they lead to enlightenment?
This is dazzling stuff, actorly rather than starry, from its drily smart dialogue to the elegant FX that creates a world behind the nation’s mirrors and returns dead soldiers to life.
At over a thousand pages, Clarke’s trilogy proved a rewarding if demanding read, densely annotated, complexly plotted, nothing less than an alternative political history of England, and this adaptation has now got to the heart of it, revealing a wonderfully constructed story that’s more moving on the screen than it was on the page.
If only Phillip Pullman’s trilogy had been made by the BBC instead of being ruined in Hollywood it would have stood beside this and ‘Wolf Hall’ as another example of great British drama. Does anyone care if the ‘Game of Thrones’ crowd don’t get it?
With three more hours to go we’ve reached the alternative version of the Peninsular Campaign, with Wellington downing rifles; ‘I don’t want to disturb the French. It’ll be lunchtime and they won’t be happy.’ It keeps getting better. I for one can’t wait for the conclusion.